Tearing Into Art

BARNABY CONRAD III ’70 has a penchant for finding iconic subjects that are still worthy of a second look.

He landed on that formula with his first book about the history of absinthe, the forbidden “muse” that inspired and tormented artists and writers including Gauguin, Van Gogh, Baudelaire, and Wilde. He followed that up with a best seller on the history of the martini, as well as deeply researched and colorfully illustrated books about cigars, blonde actresses, even Pan American Airways, aka Pan Am.

“Maybe it’s just simple ideas for simple minds—my own included,” Conrad jokes. He credits the New Yorker writer John McPhee with popularizing the concept. But Conrad— who is also an editor, artist, skilled angler, and world traveler—has his own deep well of unique interests and experience from which he draws inspiration. “I think it’s good to write about what you like,” he says. “People may not get it, but you’ve got to do what’s going to keep you excited if you’re going to do a long book.”

Conrad’s latest long book was birthed particularly slowly. His interest in the Parisian mixed-media artist Jacques Villeglé began forming almost two decades ago. At first, Conrad was just going to write an article—until finally, 256 pages later, he had something weightier on his hands.

“It became the thesis that I never wrote at Yale,” says Conrad, who considers Villeglé to be “France’s greatest living artist.”

Still remarkably spry and lively at age 95, Villeglé guided Conrad around the streets of Paris, offering a vibrant history lesson with practically each building they passed, and pointing out the spots where he snatched the posters that became his famous “décollage” works.

Some of Villeglé’s pieces today hang in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Tate Gallery in London; and dozens of museums throughout France and Germany. But compared to other members of the French Nouveau Realisme movement, such as Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, and Arman, Villeglé felt due for more recognition among American audiences. That made him an interesting subject, Conrad says.

He also came to see Villeglé as an archivist whose work reflected the city’s history and personality as it emerged after the war. “He is one of the last of his generation,” Conrad says. “Villeglé’s art preserves the history and street life of postwar Paris.”

Conrad, like his bullfighter-writer-saloon- owner father, Barnaby Conrad Jr. ’40, is an artist himself and lived in Paris in the 1980s. But he first met Villeglé at a gallery in San Francisco in 2003. “Jacques is a real character,” Conrad says. “Caustic, funny. At his heart, he’s still 19 years old.”

Villeglé later showed him where, in 1949, he and a buddy, Raymond Hains, spotted a dirtying collection of torn movie posters on a fence in the Boulevard du Montparnasse. Thinking the haphazard arrangement actually looked somewhat artistic, they ripped the posters down and brought them back to their apartment. Weeks later, Hains and Villeglé reconstructed the poster fragments and glued them onto an eight-foot canvas. The resulting piece, titled Ach Alma Manetro, is in the permanent collection at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Villeglé went on to scavenge more than 4,500 works from Paris’s streets. “When I saw a crane on the skyline, I headed that way,” he told Conrad, “because it meant construction was going on. Where there’s work, there’s a fence. And where there’s a fence, there are posters.”

“He is really one of the grandfathers of street art,” Conrad says.

Like Conrad’s other books, the Villeglé biography is stuffed with colorful images and graphics. Published by the San Francisco gallery Modernism Inc. and Oakland-based Inkshares, Jacques Villeglé and the Streets of Paris will roll out this fall.

After five years of unbroken focus on a single French artist, Conrad says he is excited about exploring new directions, including trying his hand at writing fiction. He still keeps the eight rejection letters he received from publishers while pitching around his absinthe book, which went on to sell 70,000 copies.

He was a founding editor at Art World (in NYC), senior editor of Horizon, editor-at-large for ForbesLife magazine, and co-founder of Kanbar & Conrad Books in San Francisco. Conrad also edited his father’s books for 30 years.

He’s the author of 10 books of nonfiction, but is now working on a novel. “I’ve always been a very good editor, and I love helping writers,” Conrad says. “I think it’s just taken me this long to learn how to write [for myself].”

—Zach Schonbrun ’05